Sarah Everard: The History, Present And Future Of Women’s Safety In The UK

The case of Sarah Everard’s murder has put women’s safety at the forefront, but this isn’t a new issue for women across the world.

Although the recent case of Sarah Everard’s murder has put women’s safety to the forefront of many people’s minds, especially in the UK, this isn’t a new issue for women across the world. According to WHO, 1 in 3 women will be subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner during their lifetime. Unfortunately, the case of Sarah Everard has left many feeling that despite taking the “proper” precautions, violence against women continues to happen – one woman tweeted that Sarah ‘did everything right’ and ‘everything women are ‘supposed’ to do’, yet she still became a victim. However, the impact of this case and the legacy Sarah may leave behind her could lead to a brighter future for women’s safety, especially in the UK where changes and measures to protect women and prevent this violence have already been proposed.

The Case

On 3rd March around 9pm, Sarah Everard was walking home from a friend’s flat in Clapham, a district of South London, to her home in Brixton. The Independent estimated that this journey should have taken around 50 minutes. She was last seen on CCTV on Poynders Road in Clapham at around 9.30pm. These images showed Sarah wearing bright clothing: a turquoise coat, white beanie hat and shirt, orange and blue shoes and black and white pants. This fact spurred international conversation surrounding women’s clothing, such as one tweeter who cited such ‘bright clothes’ as women’s ‘reality’ in trying to avoid becoming victims of violent crime. At midnight on 9th March, a police officer living in Kent was arrested in connection with the Sarah Everard case. Details continued to unfold throughout the following days, leading up to Sarah’s remains being found in woodland near Ashford, a town in the county of Kent, and the officer being charged with kidnap and murder on 12th March.

This case has unquestionably shaken the UK and brought issues around women’s safety into the spotlight, prompting responses from government officials and emotional candle-lit vigils across the country. One member of the House Of Lords suggested a 6pm curfew for men, in response to police recommendations that women should not go out alone at night. This statement was met with shock and outrage and, unfortunately, a ‘deluge of misogynistic emails and tweets’ towards the Green Party member according to one of her tweets, but looking back at the history of violence against women in the UK shows that curfews aren’t a new idea with regards to women’s safety.

Looking Back: The Reclaim The Night Movement

When they were proposed, however, they weren’t for men. Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’ by the media, murdered at least thirteen women across the North of England in the late 1970s. At the time, the police advised women to stay indoors at night and not go out alone (without a man to accompany them), leading to ‘Reclaim The Night’ marches which the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group started in 1977. Although there was no “official” curfew, women found themselves being advised to limit their freedom or risk becoming another one of Sutcliffe’s victims, so many joined the marches in protest.

In the present day, many people have found parallels between the police’s advice throughout history, notably following Sarah Everard’s murder. While the investigation was ongoing, women living in the area reported to The Sun that police knocked on their doors and told them not to go out alone and to remain vigilant. These similarities in the police’s approach to protecting women appearing despite a forty-year gap between the cases could suggest that little action has been taken to improve women’s safety since the time of The Yorkshire Ripper, who recently died after contracting COVID-19 in November 2020.

Our Situation: Violence At Vigils

Another impact of the Sarah Everard case which has echoes of the past is the candle-lit vigils that were held around the country in her memory. These can be likened to the Reclaim The Night marches, although current lockdown restrictions have meant that many “official” or “main” vigils were cancelled and the majority of vigils took place on doorsteps or virtually. The main vigil on Clapham Common, near where Sarah was last seen, was officially cancelled by the organisation Reclaim These Streets. In a statement, they said the ‘lack of constructive engagement from the Metropolitan Police’ meant the event will not ‘go ahead’, and instead they planned to fundraise ‘£320,000 for women’s causes’ which would be ‘£10K for every proposed fine for the 32 vigils originally scheduled’.

On 13th March, many virtual and doorstep candle-lit vigils did go ahead at 9.30pm, the time when Sarah was last seen alive. Some people showed up to vigils in-person despite them being cancelled, such as the Birmingham vigil where police presence was ‘low-key’ and they ‘did not have to take any enforcement action’, according to a spokesperson for the West Midlands Police.

However, other events were not so peaceful. On Clapham Common, many people showed up to the cancelled main vigil and, at around 7.05pm, Sisters Uncut tweeted that ‘as soon as the sun went down, police stormed the bandstand’. Four people were arrested for public order offences and breaches of coronavirus regulations, and many criticised the way police appeared to be handling women at the event, with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, tweeting that ‘the scenes from Clapham Common are unacceptable’. Considering the fact that Sarah’s killer was a serving police officer, many have found the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the vigil to be an inappropriate response which could contribute to a lack of trust between the public and the police.

Looking Forward: A Nation’s Response

Image Source: @ourasda and @tescofood on Instagram

Despite the clashes between mourners and the police at some in-person vigils, positive action has been proposed by the British government to improve women’s safety. The ‘Safer Streets’ fund, which supports local authorities in improving street lighting, CCTV, home security and other measures to combat neighbourhood crime, will be doubled to £45m. Pilots of a project called ‘Project Vigilant’, where plain clothes officers will go to clubs, bars and popular nightspots to gather and relay information about predatory or suspicious people to uniformed officers, will also begin to take place across the country.

Several large supermarkets, such as Tesco, M&S and Asda, have also offered their support to women. In a post on Instagram, Asda have stated that ‘you can always take your time, wait inside or reach out to our colleagues should you be concerned for your safety’. In a similar statement which was also posted to Instagram, Tesco declared that ‘all [their] stores are safe spaces’ and that people who ‘feel unsafe’ can ‘use [their] stores to wait for a taxi, a bus or a friend’. These are positive steps forward from major UK retail chains and, combined with the government’s proposed measures and projects, these messages can act as a little hope that everyone will be more aware of women’s safety and what they can do to help moving forward.

Where We Are Now

There is clearly an issue around women’s safety being neglected, both in the UK and worldwide. The tragedy of Sarah Everard’s death has directed the public’s attention towards this issue, but it has always been underlying within society – the case of The Yorkshire Ripper suggests that little has changed around women’s safety since the 1970s. It is encouraging that the government has taken some decisive action around improving women’s safety and the general safety of everyone who wants to simply go outside after dark, and also that some major companies have been supporting this cause. But it is unquestionably important to continue raising awareness around threats to women’s safety and also how to keep yourself safe outdoors, regardless of your gender.

What Can We Do?

Continuing to attend virtual events or participating in doorstep vigils can be a cathartic and beneficial experience, but it is important to remember that lockdown restrictions are still in place. Try to avoid going to any in-person large gatherings and remain social-distanced from other people if you do, wearing a mask when possible.

Additionally, remain vigilant if you’re outside alone, especially if it is dark or getting dark. Try to move around in small groups or take public transport instead of walking. Consider avoiding headphones, as they make many people targets. There are several safety apps which you could look into, such as Walksafe and Hollie Guard. Walksafe was the top Free App on the Apple App Store in the United Kingdom in mid-March, according to The Guardian. Look out for your friends, make sure you all get home safe and keep in contact throughout your journeys.

Also, keep looking after yourself and your mental health. This case has shaken the UK and seeing it all across traditional and social media might be a bit overwhelming. Take some time to detach from social media and care for yourself – you could meditate, immerse yourself in your favourite hobby or go for a walk to clear your head. Make sure you give yourself the time and space you need during this difficult time.

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